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The Second Turtledove
I stand still.
I do not watch the brush in the man's hand, but I know where it is at all times, and I try to reconcile this with previous brushings so that my routine is clear and I am aware and relaxed. The man knows us, knows where and when to place the brush, and I keep all this in my brain as a reminder for next time.
I can be a bit flighty, but I am a promising youngster. This valuable knowledge has come to me through our favorite, the man whose land and kennel and pack this is, and it is true. The older hounds will take me to task for presuming other things, but on this fact they never negate me. I am promising. I will be a great bitch; the master thinks so, and has made the houndsmen to think so.
I must stand still as calmly as the older hounds do, never second-guessing the placement of the brush, the next movement of his hand, the last word he said and whether it was spoken to me.
It must not _matter_. Then I will be a truly good hound.
It is difficult. I fidget, although I stand like a watchful deer. My restlessness is in my tongue and in the quivering of my frozen limbs, and the man knows it. He mutters to me but does not use my name, and I barely roll an eye in his direction.
He praises me, and then speaks in words that I now recoginize as a group, for I hear them more than once every day in the same concerned string and tone. "How are your legs today, Little One?"
My legs are fine, I tell the man as I turn now to face him, feet still firmly planted in their square formation. It is only in the mornings that my joints ache and I strive to run past the discomfort and drive it away in a gallop that makes me whimper when I am not thinking.
My caretaker feels down my limbs again, parting snarls here and there with his fingers as he does so, and I face front again, giving him permission to do what he will. That is the proper way to behave, not sticking one's tongue and nose into every crease in his hand, not sniffing at the metal pins on the flat wooden brush and getting prickled or scratched.
The time for my own power is on the hunt. I feel fine now, in the afternoon, and it is such a shame, because in the mornings when we go out I have to spend half of my thoughts in banishing the aches in my limbs. You are just young, and growing fast, inform my experienced packmates. It is not worth whining about.
The men seem to agree, and I hear in their concerned voices only an admiration for my form and a slight bit of pity for a growing dog who hunts in pain. When I outgrow this stage, my joints will be so strong that I will go on real hunts and leave even the falcons behind, they will not _fly_ over the rough spots as well as I will _run_ over them. Pity I could not go out again in the afternoons, when the sun and wind have dried and blown away the last vestiges of the morning's pressure on my joints. Pity I could not go now and take down a wolf! There must be one menacing the stock, somewhere. But the dogs on the perimeter know their work, and it is not my place.
The man continues to brush me carefully, telling me as he does so why I must not go out and wear down my growing bones, but I do not want to hear him. It seems ridiculous. Of course, I have been told _I_ am ridiculous. I am a puppy, really. I am not a brood bitch like my dignified and stately dam. But I will be, and before that I will be a hunter, and I will worship myself and the master will cause the other dogs to avert their eyes from me and I will always have company and in hundreds of generations there will be hounds with the faces of myself and my mates, and my master will be a famous man with dogs gifted to the peoples of all the hunting lands of the world.
And every day I will be brushed.
I will grow to stand as calmly and proudly as the elder dogs, and I will walk sedately to my caretaker and ask him to brush me, and I will meditate on my life and my pack and look forward and plan for the next hunt, and I will go to sleep well-groomed and well-adored. And it will not matter to me, I will be above it all, like the dogs before whom even our favorite bows. I will stand still for the metal pins and I will enjoy it, and I will run far ahead of the horses and capture the leopard and the hare and the deer and I will enjoy that. I will run the perimeter for the men, and I will step down when the master requires this of me-- probably.
Suddenly I feel a great sense of affection for my caretaker, and I turn quickly, feet still planted, and kiss him quickly on the ear.
"Be still," he says gently, and I am thus reprimanded. The dignity of the young comes and goes, it seems.
"Almost through," the man says, understandingly. "You seem to have picked up a lot of these seeds today."
Yes, I have. They stick to my coat and in between my pawpads and they prick my tongue and lips when I try to chew them out. He works them out with the brush, and gradually my silky hair straightens again, and flows out from my skin, and as air and oils circulate I feel very good and ready for sleep.
The man lays aside the brush and begins fingering my hairs in a firm, rubbing, rolling motion from the skin side out, and this part I do like, truly. My eyes half-close and I lean some of my weight against him, smelling the oils in our skins mixing in a new scent that is neither species.
Finally the grooming is done, and with one more smoothing of the thick, long tresses on my ears the man gives me the release. I bounce forward, grinning, and wheel to pat the ground before him. Now comes the final inspection of the evening, and after the lamps will be removed and we will sleep, the only sound in the dark being from the breathing of forty hounds and a kennelman snoring.
"Wait, here, Little One, your master would have you wear this. It is a gift from him to you, so hold still and act respectful." The man reaches for me, and I shove my muzzle happily into his hands, but he immediately withdraws. That was not respectful. I compose myself and wait. He reaches again, and I see the shimmer of new metal in a string curving between his two hands.
"You are marked as a favorite, to wear jewelry specially designed for you. Keep this nice until he sees you tonight, at least. It is the least you can do."
There is a smile in his voice. I am a good dog regardless, this I know. But somehow this little collar is important, so I allow the man to brush back my ear fringes and affix the shimmery thing around my narrow, muscular neck.
I walk sedately behind my caretaker to my box, and step inside as properly as any of the most experienced dogs. More properly, perhaps. I have seen some bound like puppies after a well-praised hunt. I carefully turn to bid the man goodnight, and then he smiles and touches me under the chin, to which I whip my thin, curled tail several times and smile back.
All is well; the master will come through and observe us all, and speak for a time to this man or that, and in the morning we will traverse the rocks and flat fields again and the sun will be glorious. My aches may never come back again. After all, every evening they disappear.
I stretch out on my pillow as the bottom half of my door is swung shut and latched. I wait, head up, for the master. Other hounds sigh and shift or walk about in their boxes, and I shift my ears to hear them; the tiny chain about my neck moves as my coat follows my ears.
I dip my nose down to explore this new item. It is not forbidden now that my caretaker is not directly in front of me, trying to perfect my appearance.
The chain does not encircle my neck in a stiff, thick manner as does a collar, but instead curves lightly down in the middle of my neck above the pits of my forelegs. The small weight that draws it down in this way is dark, and glints in the lamplight, and does not smell of metal. The rest of the piece smells of worked metal and humans, including the master. I feel comforted to wear his scent. Still, this is a new thing and perhaps could be removed, if I found it necessary. I try at this with my jaws for a few moments, soon discovering that although I can bump the collar with my nose, I cannot yet figure out how to work my jaw underneath it and lift it for further inspection. I decide to let it be.
I and all the other dogs wait, and soon he comes, as we know he will every evening. Three sets of feet and three deep voices step and speak on the threshold of the far end of the kennels, then they begin to make their way down the line of boxes. Lamplight reshadows itself around the master and his huntsmen as they stop at each half-door and peer over it to speak to and admire the dog beyond. Sometimes, the master or one of the huntsmen reaches in and touches a dog, and then the rest of us wait even more anxiously, in the wild hope that he might touch us this evening as well. Of course, some of the best hunters wait to grant permission for a touch until they are done considering the master's power. They reconsider every night, and I am not sure whether I respect them more or less for this.
No matter. Now, the men are at my door, and I wag my tail furiously so as to keep the energy of greeting from sending me into a childish leap to the half-door. Finally one of the huntsmen, the second-in-command, smiles at me and pats the wooden top edge of the door invitingly. I look once to the master, as he had been speaking, and I know it is not right to interrupt. But he, too, is watching me, and gives a slight nod, so I enthusiastically rear up and grip the door with the tight forward curve of my paws. Here I stand as all the men rub my ears and chat and smile, and I revel in the attention of the men who ride behind us on the hunt. These are important men, and I help to make them important. At least, I will in the future.
They know this, and have made it clear to me. "The jewel looks fine on her, does it not?" The master asks his favorite huntsman.
The man nods. He fingers the neck-ring and nods again. "I don't know as much as some about these fancy things, but what you see fit to dress her with must be fine, the way you dote on this animal and her dam."
"Nothing but the best," chuckles the master. "She deserves no less than her dam... By my estimation she is the better dog."
I bask in the voices and the touch, and stay standing, angled against the door, until the men finish their nightly time with me. Then they back away with a final word to me, and I drop back down. Now I can sleep, as they continue down the tiles to the next waiting hound, and the next.
I try to meditate on falcons and their actions the way some of the older dogs do, but cannot seem to make it work. I try to understand the footing of hounds versus horses, but I do not get far enough in my logic to make that work either. I will have to learn it slowly, I suppose, but when one has to wait to mature to earn intuition, how can one learn except by thinking and thinking and doing and thinking some more? And there is nothing to _do_ now except go to sleep until sunrise.
I yawn and stretch out easily, shuffling my shoulders and hips a little until I am thoroughly comfortable.
Something feels wrong, but I am not sure what it is, and it certainly seems that all is well. I am resting, just as I should be, the men are walking, just as they should be, and nothing can be wrong. I am worrying about my joints, perhaps. Do they hurt? No, they are sound. Not worth whining about. I adjust myself a little more and breathe out my nose. My nose drips a small trickle of moisture, which I lick away. The salty taste is not quite the same as usual, but when I lick some more it fades away.
My ears encircle my head, one underneath and one draped across my face, and I sleep.
Cold cannot seep into this good building. The master would not let it. Still, I feel the ache, as of cold, worming into my joints even before I awake. It creeps slowly, for hours, from the middle of the night on into morning.
My eyes see scenes from places I have never been, but the visions seem more vivid tonight, and more unusual. There are not even traces of the pack and herd I know; the story of the day does not flow from things I could imagine remembering. I sleep, yet I want to wake up and start over. I want the dreams I am used to, the ones I have always had.
Once I rise, and try to shift position so I will not be stiff like an elderly dog when morning does come and it is time for speed and action. My hips and ankles already pinch, though. I sigh impatiently and paw cautiously at the floor, looking for an ideal spot to rest yet feeling as though my paws have been bruised as I do so. And it is not even the dampest part of the predawn yet.
Once again I lie down, my fur offering some comfort where it glides over my joints.
The other hounds are asleep. I consider making some noise just so a few will wake up and keep me company, but I know that the more dignified ones would not approve.
I sleep again.
In the morning, my last dream fades and I raise my head and yawn.
Now the kennelmen will come with our small meals, and the huntsmen and my caretaker will prepare us for the hunt. At midday we will eat our large meals, then comes the grooming and the cleaning, then evening and rest. I reach out with my forelegs in a stretch... I am eager to be up and waiting so nothing hinders the preparations for a run in the mountains.
As I reach, I feel as though my legs are being pulled far forward, much farther than they can stand. I almost whimper deep in my throat, but quickly swallow the sound and withdraw my protesting legs. I will not stretch, right now. I will wait until I am out in the sun.
I _must_ be able to hunt!
This is nothing to be worried about. It is just a bit more painful than yesterday. So, yesterday does not exist anymore. There is nothing to compare this morning's ache with. And I can gallop no matter what happens. My eyes are clear, my jaws are strong. Pain is not weakness. I trot to the half-door and sniff up at its edge, awaiting the men and the day's learning.
As I stand, idly smelling the food being dished out somewhere down the corridor, and hearing and smelling the other dogs waking, yawning out their warm night breaths and stretching, I see a face above me.
It comes from nowhere, yet it must have come from somewhere. And I know what it is. It is one of the wolves that lives and hunts near our master's land, standing here now and staring at me over the humans' side of my box's door.
It must have its paws on the door. Where did it come from? Are there more? The thin creature, light eyes round and hungry, lips tight and nervous, stares at me silently.
I am frozen. My head hurts, and I try to shake it, but no motion is made. The chain on my neck is cold and heavy through the fur on my neck-- it must be a different chain, it must have come in the night. The wolf's head stares at me, eyes sharp and odd in the masked face. Wolf! Enemy! But why are not the guard dogs approaching?
I do not think of anything I should be doing. I simply stand in one spot, staring, still.
Then the wolf fades back and disappears.
I am drooling in my nervousness. My caretaker appears, and I stand shakily waiting for him to open my box. I hurt. I don't want him to touch me. I want to hear that I have done well, that there are no ravenous wolves in the kennel, or anywhere on the master's land, and that by standing and doing nothing I have done well.
The man bends to examine me as soon as he opens the door. "What happened? Are you ill? It's all right, it's all right, there, I'll get the farrier, you stay put, poor girl."
I stay. The door latches, and I try to rest on my haunches, but the joints pull me back into a stand as soon as I try. Finally I force myself down and wait for the help I know is coming. The kennelmen and the farrier will touch me, all will be well, and we can go hunting.
Then the wolf comes back.
I don't see it, though I try desperately to do so, but I know it is there. I snarl, and the dog in the next box snuffles concernedly in my direction.
Not you, I tell him, the wolf, the _wolf_!
The other dog rears up, I hear his feet hit the sides of his box, and looks all about for the wolf.
There is no wolf. Silly pup.
But there is. A masked wolf, scrawny, angry. It makes no sound. It's _here_...
There is no wolf.
But there is. There is.